India, a land of ancient knowledge, has the largest collection of manuscripts in the world dating back thousands of years, covering different areas including religion, philosophy, science, medicine, arts and literature. Composed in various ancient and contemporary Indian languages and scripts like Hindi, Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, and Tamil, these manuscripts were written on diverse materials such as birch bark, palm leaf, cloth, wood, stone and paper.
Unfortunately, these manuscripts are lying in various corners in utter neglect in libraries, academic institutions, museums, temples and monasteries, and private collections; and were never complied into a single repository until now. Realizing the need to restore these invaluable manuscripts, the Department of Culture took upon itself the task and established the National Manuscript Mission (NMM) in February 2003. A five-year project, NMM does not only locate and preserve manuscripts but is also engaged in spreading awareness. The mission has already created an electronic database for one million manuscripts even as it has estimated that there are five million manuscripts in India.
|Moving the manuscript by hand through 12 imaging positions|
One of the most ambitious digitization plans of the government till date, the department of culture chalked out an ambitious plan to use IT effectively to identify, catalog, conserve, preserve and disseminate India's manuscripts. With the assistance of the National Informatics Centre (NIC), a step-by-step plan was created for a national repository of manuscripts. To achieve this goal, NMM had to collate and collect information on the manuscripts. Twenty-four Manuscript Resource Centers (MRCs) were thus identified across the country to survey, list, and catalog the manuscripts. In the next step, an outline for an electronic register was created which would capture all the relevant information from various sources. The NIC came up with a format that would capture information on institutions, catalogs, subject, author, indexes and the state of preservation of manuscripts.
Since the manuscripts were in different languages, NIC realized the need for a multilingual electronic register. Another key need of the application was transliteration, as the scholars would have wanted to access data entered in one language while it may have been input in another.
Thus was developed Manus Granthavali, the National Electronic Register application developed by NIC, built using Microsoft's software on Unicode standards, chosen due to its global acceptance, easier localization of application and improved multilingual text processing. Manus Granthavali, a client server application, was built on the .NET platform with Microsoft SQL Server 2000.
While digitization of ancient manuscripts would serve the purpose of making these available to future generations, yet some manuscripts are in a dilapidated condition so much so that it becomes impossible to take them to any center for digitization for fear of damaging the contents forever. In order to solve this issue, the government launched a digital mobile lab last year. The mobile lab will reach the place where the manuscript is stored and capture the information. This lab for manuscripts will use cutting edge technology and will integrate space communications, digital imaging and chemical engineering technologies.
Problems on the Way
India has rich information related to literature, music, traditional system of medicine and science but all of these are embedded in palm leaves. It is essential to search, understand and preserve this valuable information for future generations. Merely scanning the palm leaves would not be very useful as the number of people who can read the palm leaves and interpret the meanings, identify the plants and stones mentioned in the palm leaves are few and even those who can read may not be that fluent in entering all that into computers in a digital form.
|Leaf Aptus 75 Digital used by RIT for restoration work|
The Optical Character Recognition of these ancient scripts is also a tough problem. India's President APJ Abdul Kalam has suggested that for every palm leaf scanned, the information read by experts can be stored in an audio format. "We can then put these on the web and invite other experts to provide free and fair commentary and validate every palm leaf data. This data can also be used for creating a new generation of palm leaves reading experts-a species that has almost vanished," he added.
For Restoration of manuscripts by using technology India should take inspiration from initiatives abroad. Scientists from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) were involved in the restoration work of a 700-year old Indian palm leaf manuscript, Sarvamoola Grantha, a collection of 36 erudite commentaries, which were found in a dilapidated condition
The project is employing cutting edge technology in order to digitally restore these manuscripts. Revealing the technology, Roger L Easton, professor RIT who has worked on this project along with PR Mukund, another RIT professor said, "we used a scientific digital camera which has the Kodak 1602E sensor, 1536x1024 pixels. For this project, we wanted to image at near infrared wavelengths because we expected that this would enhance the contrast between the text and the palm leaf "background," which proved to be correct." The images had a resolution of about 25 pixels per mm, which required the team to collect about 10-12 images for each leaf and since the images overlapped considerably, these were digitally "stitched". Easton informed that these restored manuscripts would now be "preserved on silicon wafers".
The restoration and digitization work of the invaluable scriptures, books, songs etc will make the coming generations benefit and learn from these but so long as the strict conservation standards before digitization are kept, digitization is the best way to make old manuscripts etc accessible to the wider public. As N Balakrishnan, IISC professor rightly said: "Since everything today points towards an Internet-dependent world, one is not wrong when one says, you are in this world only if you are on Google."